'UnREAL': Brandon Jay McLaren on Playing the Show's Calming Force -- and Why It's a Thankless Task (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
Sometimes it pays to be a psychologist, but not on UnREAL.
In the third season of Lifetime's provocative drama, a new psychologist by the name of Dr. Simon is hired by Everlasting producer Quinn (Constance Zimmer). His primary task? To keep an eye on Quinn's right-hand woman, Rachel (Shiri Appleby). But as things often go on UnREAL, unexpected circumstances arise and allegiances shift.
Actor Brandon Jay McLaren, who plays Dr. Simon, tells ET that his character is meant to be the calming force amid the manipulation and chaos -- both for the characters within the Everlasting bubble and for the viewers at home watching the madness play out before their very eyes.
"The hope is that is what's appealing about this character. He's kind of like the eyes and ears of the viewer," McLaren said. "The viewer is thrown into this world cold and at first, you're like, 'This is insanity. This is so messed up.' By the end of the season, like people who have come before him, you kind of get sucked into this world of UnREAL and you find yourself doing things you wouldn't otherwise do, compromising parts of your integrity. It's like the Rachel vortex as they say; everybody gets sucked into this thing."
"At the beginning, Dr. Simon is very much on the outside looking in and that sets off a crazy journey that he's about to go on," he teased, adding that Dr. Simon is set on keeping Everlasting as accident-and death-free as possible. (Considering the body count over the first two seasons, it's guaranteed to be an impossible task.) "'Nobody dies on my watch,'" McLaren said of his character's mindset. "'I can't have that happen to me again,' and UnREAL is a space where... people have died."
Dr. Simon's relationship with Rachel starts off with an agenda on Quinn's part to ensure that Rachel stays "in her pocket for her own self-interest," McLaren said, sharing Quinn's modus operandi: "Keep an eye on Rachel so I can create the show and she can make me a hit." "As Rachel and Dr. Simon's relationship grows and gets more intense, he starts to see the entire thing for what it is and he starts to have an affinity for Rachel and almost goes into protective mode. Dr. Simon has to prove to Rachel that a) she can trust him and b) eventually he'll be on her side."
McLaren alluded to a dark path for Dr. Simon as the season progresses and he admitted it was "absolutely" a lot of "fun" to flip that switch. "It also occurred in an organic way," he explained. "When you're filming a show like UnREAL, the first episode there's like 30 of us and as each week goes on and two or three people get eliminated, it becomes a very small universe. As the show changes, your work experience on the show changes with it."
Admittedly, McLaren didn't watch the first two seasons of UnREAL before the part of Dr. Simon came his way over a year ago. In fact, the Canadian actor shared that it was his Ransom co-star, Sarah Greene, who first introduced him to the series. (McLaren stars on the CBS crime drama, returning for its sophomore run on April 7.) When he broke the news to Greene that he was reading for the role, she assumed the role as camerawoman for his taped audition. It all worked out for McLaren.
"The acting is fantastic, especially Constance and Shiri," McLaren said of what initially drew him into thefranchise. "That first season was so amazing. This season, because I play Rachel's shrink, I work with Shiri a lot and even though I work with her, I would find myself watching her act in the scene and then I'd be like, 'Oh f**k. No Brandon, you have to act too! You can't just watch her! It doesn't work that way.'"
McLaren, whose past credits include series regular roles in Graceland and The Killing, highlighted UnREAL's ability to "balance entertainment with real, gritty, raw stories." "It's a fine balance. Some shows get into the spiral of getting darker and darker, and sometimes that doesn't mean it's necessarily entertaining," he observed, calling this season's arcs "realistic" and "truthful."
And as for what fans can expect moving forward, McLaren says Dr. Simon stays "on his own doctor island for most of the season," though he played coy when asked about any particular allegiances his character may find himself aligning with.
"You really get a sense that he really does care and I think he gets angry when he sees that some of the people surrounding Everlasting don't necessarily have Rachel's best interests at the forefront," he said. "That's the reason why he stays on an island and whether or not he's successful with getting Rachel on his island, that's what's really going to keep people tuning in."